Every January, a 40-man wrestling match breaks out in the world of professional wrestling. The match is one of the most exciting nights in wrestling, properly labeled—The Royal Rumble.
Last Friday, the National Hockey League experienced their own version of The Royal Rumble when the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders combined for 15 fighting majors, 10 ejections, 20 game misconducts, 65 penalties and 346 total penalty minutes, and oh yeah—a hockey game to go with it.
The day after the Islanders-Pengiuns game, the NHL handed out suspensions and fined the Islanders for not controlling their players.
On Sunday, Penguins owner Mario Lemieux spoke.
In the second period of their game last Friday, Islanders forward Matt Martin attacked Penguins center Max Talbot from behind. While on an offensive rush, Talbot brushed Islanders goalie Mikko Koskinen with his hockey stick. Martin retaliated against Talbot and the attack led to a full-on line brawl that resulted in six ejections.
In the third period, all hell broke loose.
After a brutal check by Islanders winger Trevor Gillies, a second, more intense line fight broke out. Talbot, who all but turtled when Matt Martin attacked him in the second period, got into a scrap with Islanders center Micheal Haley, who dropped Talbot with a big right hand.
And it wasn't over.
After knocking down Talbot with a right hand to the chin, Haley strolled down the ice and engaged with Penguins goalie Brent Johnson, who might be the coolest goalie in all the league after his second scrap in less than 10 days.
As Haley prepared to scrap with Johnson, Penguins enforcer Eric Godard jumped from the bench to protect his goalie, although Johnson held his own.
After the dust settled, the Islanders were leveled with suspensions to forwards Trevor Gillies for nine games, Matt Martin for four games and were hit with a fine of $100,000. Penguins enforcer Eric Godard was handed a 10-game suspension for leaving the bench to join in the Haley-Johnson fight.
On Sunday, Penguins owner Mario Lemieux blasted the NHL for not "sending a message". "It was a travesty. It was painful to watch the game I love turn into a sideshow like that," Lemieux said.
Part of this statement I agree with.
Fighting is a part of hockey, but when referees lose control like they did on Friday by allowing Haley to roam freely all the way down to the other side of the rink and engage with Brent Johnson, that's when it becomes borderline travesty, borderline awesomeness.
Lemieux however is also flawed in his statement. Yes, you can argue that incidents like this make a mockery of the game, but they also ignite and invigorate the hockey world.
Remember when ESPN used to show hockey games on TV? Just over a year ago, ESPN was showcasing a highlight here and there with Barry Melrose and Matthew Barnaby and now, unless it's a Sidney Crosby or an Alexander Ovechkin highlight, ESPN gives more air time to horse racing than ice hockey.
Lemieux can bash the NHL for the lack of discipline, yet everybody, including ESPN will highlight the Islanders-Pengiuns rematch in April, regardless of whether anything happens at all.
Ticket sales will increase in anticipation for a second Royal Rumble and teams will jockey their lineups in preparation. Instead of Marc Andre-Fleury starting in net for the Penguins, Brent Johnson may take the reigns again just in case there's a third line scrap against the Islanders.
Of everything that Mario Lemieux said about the NHL being soft on the suspensions, how ironic was it that the Penguins were not fined for not "controlling their players." Eric Godard left the bench to join in the Johnson-Haley fight. Godard leaving the bench could have ignited an all-out, bench-clearing brawl, yet not one single Islander left the bench. Despite this, the Islanders, not the Penguins got leveled with the fine.
Lastly, as a hockey fan, it's amazing that Lemieux could speak of the "sideshow" that the game turned into on Friday when in fact it's Lemieux's Penguins who lead the NHL in fights, penalty minutes and majors and also happen to have one of the dirtiest players in the league in Matt Cooke, the same Cooke who may have ended the career of Boston Bruins forward Marc Savard. The same Cooke who could have ended Alexander Ovechkin's season with a brutal knee-to-knee shot back on February 6.
Bob Stewart once said, "Red Ice sells hockey tickets," yet in the world of Mario Lemieux, so long as the ice isn't red with his team's blood, he's fine with it. The moment the other team draws blood, it's a travesty.